Here’s what it means for nonprofit and political marketers 

TikTok will soon overtake Twitter as the most prolific producer of new memes, according to new research.

That finding from our veritable Library of Alexandria of internet culture, Know Your Meme, might feel intuitive to those of us who’ve become attached to TikTok’s highly addictive algorithm and soothing user experience. With so much strategy predicated on meeting our audiences where they are, this trend is set to have significant ramifications on marketers and fundraisers. 

Adapting our creative strategies to fit this form is key. Otherwise, we might end up sounding like your Boomer uncle on Facebook trying to crash a Zoomers-only zone. Here’s our take on what this all means.

Steve Buscemi meme, "How do you do, fellow kids?" Referenced from 2012 episode of '30 Rock'
Photo credit via The Verge article, “‘How do you do, fellow kids’ has become the ‘how do you do, fellow kids’ of memes”

Why should we care about where memes are being created?

We use a number of metrics to measure the performance of social content like total reach, impressions, and return on ad spend (ROAS). We look at daily active user count to determine how popular a social media platform is and engagement rates to see how frequently users are responding to the content they see. 

But we would do well to look around the corner and examine which platforms are producing the most original content. That metric has historically proven to be a leading indicator for where our audiences are moving, particularly younger audiences. We need only look at the downturn Facebook has taken in recent years, now only accounting for 1.9% of new memes, to understand why logging on there feels like walking through an abandoned shopping mall.  

Soon, all social platforms will feature content that’s downstream of TikTok and Twitter. Eventually, our audiences will want to swim upstream to get them from the source. Among TikTok users, it’s become something of a meme in and of itself that a viral joke on TikTok will go viral on Instagram in 2-4 months. 

Meme creation may be an imperfect proxy for “original creative content,” but we could do a lot worse. As the Know Your Meme report says, “Memes are more than just funny — they can tell us a lot about the way we and the people around us see the world, exposing who and what is influencing the way that world looks and casting light on the anxieties and absolutisms which fill up life on the feed.” 

In a digital age where we’re increasingly divided and cut off from community, memes have the ability to speak to a shared culture or link us in a specific subculture. It feels good to be in on the joke. It’s what attracts people to a social platform and a big part of what keeps them there. 

Why TikTok is edging out Twitter

So why have Twitter and TikTok become such a fertile ground for original creative content? 

In many ways, the advent of Twitter and, later, TikTok has coincided with the rise of mobile: both are built to be natively experienced on our phones. Both have highly addictive algorithms. Both found a home in a specific generational cohort: Twitter among Millennials and TikTok among Zoomers. 

But that’s where the similarities end, and their differences likely account for why TikTok is coming for Twitter’s crown. Twitter and TikTok each have their own particular grammar and style of humor. Twitter’s primary meme format is visual: an image slapped with some text. 

TikTok traffics in audio and video memes (think Corn Boy). Its memes are often experiential “challenges” like pranking your significant other while your phone records the whole thing, clandestinely hidden behind a plant. It’s highly creator-centric with the vertical video format encouraging a kind of straight-to-camera intimacy that other platforms don’t demand. 

So, if original meme production is a leading indicator for growing and engaged audiences, what does that mean for nonprofit and political marketers seeking to capture new audiences or offset the attrition they’re seeing on other social platforms?

How nonprofits and campaigns can leverage TikTok

Many of the same principles that apply to good social account stewardship for nonprofits, campaigns, and brands apply to TikTok: post regularly, stay on top of new trends and memes, engage your audience, and keep your content feeling authentic to your brand’s tone and voice. But there are a few ways to strategically use this platform to reach new audiences and create your own original, engaging content. 

1. Leverage identity, community, and challenges

Every nonprofit fundraiser can probably recall a moment when they were asked by an executive, “What’s our version of the Ice Bucket Challenge?” You may remember that viral cultural moment in 2014, when it seemed every celebrity, politician, and friend from high school you still follow on Facebook posted a video of themselves getting drenched with ice water in their underwear. Participants would donate to an ALS charity, and the ALS Association raised $100 million that summer, up from $3 million the year before. 

This “challenge” meme spread like wildfire for several reasons: First, it was entertaining. It made people feel good about themselves. And it flattened the distance between celebrities and regular people.

The Ice Bucket Challenge spread on YouTube, a video-forward platform like TikTok, so it’s easy to imagine that these sorts of “challenges” will increase in frequency as TikTok’s star rises. (Interestingly, YouTube is still the #3 top producer of original memes, down from its early lead in 2011.) 

One strong example of what this could look like under TikTok’s reign is the #CookieWithACause challenge. Oreo launched this challenge on TikTok at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many of us were downloading TikTok in search of some levity and escapism. Oreo challenged their fans to post a video of themselves moving an Oreo from their foreheads into their mouths without using their hands. If a fan posted a video, Oreo made a donation to Save the Children (and got tons of free marketing along the way). 

2. Foster transparency and intimacy

Nonprofits doing impactful, heroic work around the world have a prime opportunity to leverage the intimacy that TikTok lends itself to. It’s one thing to write about your program in some email copy, but quite another to show your audience what it’s like on the ground. 

Those handheld, vertical videos create the feeling of a friend or family member FaceTiming you to update you about what’s going on. That’s a powerful tool when attempting to build a bridge between prospective donors and the impact their generosity could have. 

Take this example from our friends at Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which leverages the first-person account of Executive Director Avril Benoît’s experience in Ukraine and the patients MSF is treating aboard their medical train. The format allows supporters to see in a behind-the-scenes, personal manner how MSF is saving lives in a war zone. 

Perhaps most importantly, it fosters transparency — a value that donors seek out when deciding where to donate their hard-earned dollars. This is a key way to not only reach your donors, but build trust with them. 

3. Build brand awareness through storytelling

Too often, nonprofit and political messaging can treat its audience as if they were ATMs, burning and churning their email files with spammy donation asks that have no clear theory of change. 

Storytelling and pulling back the curtain on your organization is the antidote to this transactional style of donor stewardship. Since TikTok isn’t primarily a fundraising platform (more on that below), but rather a hub for entertainment, it opens the possibility for great narrative storytelling.

These sorts of videos can also build empathy between the donor and the people they’re impacting. This example, also from MSF, leverages the “Day in the Life” TikTok meme of people recording a so-called typical day and their routines that’s risen to popularity on the platform. Normally used to showcase aspirational lifestyles, MSF’s video turns the form on its head, focusing on an MSF doctor working in an emergency room in Afghanistan. Such a format flattens the distance between the donor and an emergency thousands of miles away, making it impossible for us to pretend that these crises are happening “over there” and have nothing to do with us.

What’s next

Crucially for political campaigns, TikTok does not allow political fundraising as of September 2022. That decision came after numerous alarming reports, including one from the Mozilla Foundation, that TikTok was not effectively policing political influencers who failed to disclose that they were being paid for their content. That included right-wing group Turning Point USA, which claims to have 280 ambassadors whose job is to “saturate social and traditional media markets with the message of freedom and limited government through influencer-based and digital marketing initiatives.”

TikTok does feature a “donate” sticker for non-political nonprofits, but it is not yet available for all organizations. More broadly, it remains to be seen whether TikTok will ever be a lucrative fundraising platform the way Facebook and Instagram have been to date. Since the platform is primarily for entertainment, and does not collect the wealth of demographic and personal data that Meta products do, it’s unclear how effective targeted donation ads will be. 

In the meantime, we’ll be watching intently to see how content creation is reshaped under TikTok’s burgeoning reign. 

With Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter and pledges to loosen content restrictions (including reinstating one infamous Tweeter-in-Chief’s account), many users fear Twitter could become a cesspool of hate, bigotry, and disinformation in the next year. 4chan rapidly declined as a leading creator of original content when it developed a reputation for unseemly content and bullying due to lax content moderation. 

And if the past is prologue, we know that platforms that were once dominant in content creation can go extinct entirely (RIP Vine 2013-2018). If users start leaving Twitter in droves, TikTok could be the next place they go–further accelerating its ascent.